The first time Joan Bennet met Tristan Burke, he burst into her bedroom late at night wearing only his trousers and holding a single red rose.
She failed to see the romantic possibilities, but then, she was only eight.
"Where can I hide?" he demanded without preamble, looking frantically around her room.
Joan sat up in bed and stared at him with interest. This must be her brother's friend, the one who had come home with him on holiday from Eton. They'd been expected around dinnertime, but Joan had been sent to her room without supper for using a naughty word. She hadn't known it was naughty—she heard her own papa use it often, after all, and even her brother Douglas said it—but apparently it was very bad for young ladies to say it. Papa had sneaked her some rolls, though, which made it all right. And now someone had come bursting into her room late at night, which was very exciting, and therefore quite all right with Joan. "It depends," she said. "From whom are you hiding?"
She frowned. "Why are you hiding from Douglas? And why do you have a rose? Did it come from my mother's garden?"
He went still, making furious motions for her to be quiet. Joan closed her mouth and obediently waited. She wondered if Mother approved of this boy; he had long, shaggy dark hair, and was surely almost as tall as Papa, but as skinny as a stick. She could see his ribs, even in the dim moonlight coming through the windows. His hands and feet, by contrast, were too large for his body. He looked rather wild, to tell the truth, and Mother didn't like wild.
Abruptly he flung himself against the wall, right behind the door. Joan looked at the door, expecting someone else to come bursting through, but nothing happened. The boy stayed pressed to the wall, barely breathing, his eyes also fixed on the door. Joan frowned again. "Who are you?" she whispered. He ignored her. "I think you should leave my room," she said again, a little louder.
This time he faced her, his eyes fierce in the ill-lit room. Slowly he put a finger to his lips. Joan was more than a little annoyed. "Go away," she whispered loudly.
Without warning the door flew open a second time. "I caught you, you ruddy thief!" Her brother Douglas charged into the room and stopped cold. He looked around, puzzled. "Joan?" he asked cautiously.
"What do you want?" she snapped. "I was asleep."
"Uh …" Douglas backed up a step. "Sorry … I thought I heard … Well, you won't tell Mother, will you—argh!" He jumped, slapping one hand to the back of his neck. His friend had moved out of the shadows, as silent as a ghost, and tickled the rose down Douglas's back. In a flash the two boys tumbled to the floor, punching each other in a furious tangle of arms and legs. They rolled back and forth, apparently trying to kill each other, until someone's foot caught the leg of a chair and sent it crashing to the floor.
"Douglas," Joan tried to say. Neither boy acknowledged her; they continued to pound away. Joan listened again. "Douglas," she said, a little bit louder. "Papa's coming!"
That, at least, got her brother's attention. "What?"
"Someone's coming," she repeated, leaning over the edge of her bed to see them. "Most likely Papa." At least, it was usually Papa who came when she got out of bed and into trouble at night. Joan couldn't wait to move into a proper young lady's room far from her parents'.
"Bloody hell," said her brother, looking guilty all of a sudden. He twisted to look his friend in the face, a difficult feat since the boy had his arm around Douglas's throat. "We'll be thrashed."
"Where can we hide?" asked the other boy—for the second time, Joan thought a little peevishly. He and Douglas jumped to their feet, their fight forgotten, and now looking like the panicked twelve-year-old boys they were.
"Why should I tell you?" she asked. "I don't even know who you are. You're both going to get me in awful trouble if I help you, and I already had to miss supper, which was all your fault, Douglas—"
"Bother that, Joan," Douglas interrupted. "Help us this time, and I swear we'll be in your debt forever."
"Hmph." She crossed her arms. Everyone was very busy telling her what to do today. Besides, she knew forever meant less than a day to Douglas. "Under the bed, I suppose. But you'd better be quiet!" she added as they immediately slid under her bed, pulling the dust skirt down behind them. She heard a bare moment of scuffling from the floor, and then the door latch clicked open.
"Joan?" Papa peered around the edge of the door, wearing his dressing gown and old slippers. "Are you awake, popkin?"
"Yes, Papa," she whispered. "I—I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you …"
He came into the room. "Why are you awake, child?" He saw the fallen chair, and a slight frown touched his brow.
She jumped out of bed and began tugging at it, trying to right it. "I'm sorry, Papa, I knocked it over. I couldn't sleep, and I was—wasn't being careful …"
Papa picked up the chair and set it on its feet. He scooped Joan into his arms and deposited her in bed again, tucking the blankets around her. "Why couldn't you sleep?"
Joan didn't have to fake the tremble of her chin. "I was a little hungry," she confessed in a very small voice. She certainly was, now that Douglas and his friend had woken her up and made her think about the missed supper.
Her father smiled, his shoulders relaxing. "No doubt. But you shouldn't have anything to eat now; a full stomach might give you bad dreams."
Joan sighed. "I know."
He kissed her forehead. "Try to go back to sleep. Tomorrow you'll have a fine big breakfast, and be right as rain again. Agreed?"
"Good night, child."
"Good night, Papa."
He tousled her hair gently and left, closing the door quietly behind him. She listened to his footsteps die away, then hung over the side of her bed. "You go away now, Douglas."
Her brother crawled out, a relieved smile spread wide across his face. "You're an angel, Joan," he said fervently. "This is Tristan Burke, by the by; he's a mate of mine from school."
The boy got to his feet, too. He was taller than Douglas, and looked even skinnier next to her strapping brother. He bowed awkwardly, and Joan giggled. "Tristan Burke, miss, at your service."
"Why are you hiding?" Joan asked them. "And what are you doing running about in the middle of the night?"
Douglas looked sheepish. "A wager."
"Who won?" she wanted to know.
For the first time Tristan grinned. His eyes lit up, and a deep dimple appeared in his cheek. "I did." There was no small amount of pride in the words.
Douglas scoffed. "You cheated. Must have done."
Tristan's grin turned positively cocky. "Prove it."
Douglas grumbled under his breath, but said nothing more of cheating.
"What was the wager?" Joan asked. This was interesting enough to keep her from thinking about her rumbling stomach.
Tristan held aloft the rose, now a bit squashed from the fight and the cramped quarters under the bed. "I got a rose."
Joan waited, but he said nothing more. "From where? Why? That's a silly sort of bet, to get a rose. What's it for?"
Douglas growled. "Nothing. It's not for anything. Let's go, Tris." He tiptoed over to the door and eased it open, looking up and down the corridor.
Tristan glanced at Douglas, then back at her. "It's for you," he whispered, handing her the flower. "For saving us from a thrashing."
She took it, mildly pleased but recognizing a dodge when she saw one. "Why did you make a wager?" she asked again, but Tristan had joined Douglas at the door. After a moment, they slipped out, with one last whispered thanks from Douglas. Joan put the rose beside her pillow and flopped back down with a sigh. Her stomach grumbled loudly. A flower was lovely, but if he'd really wanted to thank her, he might have brought a teacake at the least.
The second time she met Tristan Burke was several years later. True to her first impression, Tristan had turned out to be wild, too wild for her mother to countenance inviting him back. Joan would never forget the trouble he and Douglas got themselves into during that holiday; the wager over the rose, which turned out to have been over who could get a rose from the garden without opening any doors, was by far the tamest thing they did. Mother declared Tristan Burke a bad influence within three days' time, and after that she took care to keep Joan out of the boys' path. Aside from suppers, she almost never saw him.
Of course Mother's disapproval did nothing to prevent Douglas from being firm friends with Tristan, all through Eton and university. Joan heard of him in letters from Douglas, and the occasional story about some adventure that usually ended abruptly with Douglas realizing he was telling her things a girl ought not to hear of. She had a feeling Tristan Burke was even wilder than she could imagine.
The fall of Joan's sixteenth year, Lord Burke died, and the family went to pay their respects to Tristan, now the new Viscount Burke. She knew him at once, a tall, thin young man standing with his hands shoved deep into his pockets. While her parents went to condole with his aunt, Lady Burke, Joan sidled closer to Tristan, who was watching everything with a dark, moody expression.
"I'm very sorry for your loss," she said softly.
Without looking at her, he snorted. He still looked slightly unkempt, his long dark hair now bound in a queue. His clothes, though of respectable quality, hung loosely on him. Joan didn't know how to interpret his response, and hesitated.
"They hate me," he said suddenly, with quiet malice. Joan followed his gaze; across the room Lady Burke sat regally stiff and upright on the sofa, dressed in unrelieved black and accepting fresh handkerchiefs from her similarly clad young daughters at her side. She bowed her head as Joan's parents offered their sympathies. Joan rather thought she looked as though her world had ended. "Aunt Mary. My cousins. They think I'm a heathen wastrel, unworthy of the title, ready to throw them all into the street."
"Why would they think that?" Joan could have bitten her tongue as soon as she asked the question; that was not proper, she told herself. She had been trying very hard of late to act like a proper lady, in order not to embarrass herself in her Season next year.
"Because they listen to gossip and read the scandal sheets." Finally he turned to face her. His eyes were a glittering green, and she almost recoiled from the intensity in his gaze. "Do you, Miss Bennet?"
"Of course," she said pertly, wanting to rattle him. His gloomy brooding-poet air was annoying. He obviously didn't care about his uncle's death—all he was thinking about was how much his aunt disliked him. "They're great sport, don't you think? Everyone knows they're complete fiction."
He stared at her. "Not everyone."
"Well, everyone with all their wits," she said. "No doubt they'll realize it—"she nodded toward his aunt—"once they see you do not throw them into the street."
His gaze slid back to his black-clad aunt and cousins. "It's tempting."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "Why throw them out? Find your own quarters." As much as she loved her parents, Joan had always wished she might do this. Douglas had had his own rooms as soon as he left university, when he was barely older than she was now. But she would never be allowed to rent her own townhouse and live a merry life on the town. Tristan Burke should appreciate the advantages he had instead of dwelling on the troubles in his life.
His mouth twisted. "You don't understand."
Joan heaved a sigh. "No, of course I don't. I could never possibly understand what it's like to be a gentleman with my own fortune, able to do as I please with no one to say me nay. Heaven preserve me from such unbearable oppression."
He looked at her, perhaps really paying attention to her for the first time. "You're quite impertinent."
She beamed at him, instead of smacking him across the face as her hand itched to do. "Thank you."
Tristan Burke stared at her, and then he laughed. His deep green eyes lit up and a wide grin creased his face, sharpening a dimple in his cheek. He looked full of joy in that moment, and Joan's smile faded away as she stared at him.
"I'll remember you, Joan Bennet," he said. "I like an impertinent girl."
"Oh." Her voice did not sound like hers, rather breathy and soft. "Really? You would be the first …"
He laughed again, looking devilish and tempting. He leaned closer. "I'll wager I won't be the last."
She almost forgot to breathe. He was not looking at her with amusement or even respect; there was something alive in his gaze as it wandered over her face and hair and even down her figure. Suddenly she wished she hadn't eaten that extra muffin at breakfast. Was this how gentlemen would look at ladies—at her? If so … Joan felt a tiny shock to realize she liked it, very much.
The third time Joan Bennet met Tristan Burke was eight years later. She had endured several infatuations, two broken hearts, and one near scandal, but no marriage proposals. She was perilously close to being a spinster on the shelf, while he was very likely the biggest rogue in all of London, grown every bit into the wild, reckless devil he'd promised to be. He had only to walk through a room for tongues to start wagging and ladies to start sighing, and Joan knew without a doubt he was a Dangerous Influence.
But this time, she fell in love with him anyway.